The search for an HIV vaccine has been given a significant boost with the appointment of Dr Alan Bernstein to head the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise (GHVE).

The appointment of Bernstein, founding president of the internationally respected Canadian Institutes of Health Research, comes hot on the heels of the suspension of the STEP HIV Vaccine Trial on which many had pinned their hopes for a possible breakthrough in the quest for an antidote.

The Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise is charged with setting priorities, mobilising resources and most importantly improving collaboration between all the countries and organisations in the HIV Vaccine field.

Set up four years ago, the Enterprise was housed within the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but with Bernstein’s appointment it will open an independent secretariat in New York with seven years’ worth of funding committed to support its activities.

Bernstein, who was in Cape Town to attend a meeting of the world’s foremost vaccine scientists, stressed that the GHVE was “not another new organisation”.

“We don’t need another organisation. This organisation represents all funders and will act as a co-ordinating body, not another funder. We will operate more behind the scenes and create a safe space for people to talk and set a new strategic plan (to find a vaccine),” said Bernstein.

Bernstein said the GHVE would act as a vehicle to “move those great ideas in Africa, the US, China, India, all over the world, to a clinical trial level”.

“We would end up mobilising scientific resources from countries that have just as good a minds as anywhere else,” he said.

He emphasized that it was important for scientists to share and learn from each other. “The STEP trial will not be a failure if we learn from it,” he said. The STEP trial involved a large investigational HIV vaccine trial in South Africa, Australia and the United States that have been stopped after it did not achieve the results that scientists had been hoped for.

Bernstein, a scientist with a background in cancer research, said first priorities would be to get to know the field of HIV, meet with groups of key roleplayers early next year to determine the role of the Enterprise, identify milestones as opposed to timelines and meeting with communities.

“It is important for me to truly understand what it is like to live with HIV, what it is like to be a home-based carer,” said Bernstein who has plans to tour Africa in the new year.

“There is no greater motivator for a scientist than seeing the reality of AIDS on the ground,” he said.

Is Bernstein at all daunted by the task of trying to co-ordinate the world-wide search for an HIV vaccine? He smiles and leans forward: “It is a huge challenge, but I am not doing this alone. Lots of people are working on this and its not all on my shoulders. And what could be more worthwhile than getting people working together on this?”

He pauses and adds: “I would not have taken this job if I did not believe we would find a vaccine.”

Anso Thom

Health-e News Service

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